Long before Tranquille became famous as a tuberculosis sanatorium beginning in William Fortune’s home in 1907, it was known for gold.
Placer gold had been discovered at several locations in the Interior of B.C. by 1857, including at Pend d’ Oreille and Tranquille rivers by James Houston, a Scotsman with a sailing background.
It is claimed erroneously that Houston was the first to discover gold on the mainland of B.C., but he was involved in the early Pend d’Oreille River rush of 1855 near the American border.
Houston later headed to Fort Kamloops and, in the spring of 1857, he found gold at Tranquille River.
He sold it to chief trader Donald McLean of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) fort, who forwarded it to his superiors. In 1856, Indigenous miners at Nicoamen on the Thompson River had already alerted the company to gold in the district.
New evidence by historian Daniel Marshall suggests that all gold, whether collected from Houston or from Indigenous and non-Indigenous miners, was sent directly to London by ship from Fort Langley.
In December 1857, Gov. James Douglas advised the Colonial Office in London of the discovery of gold in the Couteau district of the Fraser and Thompson rivers.
At that time, he issued a proclamation that made digging for gold illegal without a licence. It was a vain attempt to control what became an influx of American miners. News of the discovery resulted in the rush of 1858, which attracted great numbers of miners from California and elsewhere — more than 30,000 in that year alone.
The fur trade itself was already in decline in the southern half of the Interior, forcing the HBC to adapt to the changing commerce. The trade store at Fort Kamloops, located on the North Shore until 1862, catered to new consumers and supplied miner’s tents, clothing, boots, tools and foodstuffs.
Miners flocked to Tranquille until 1862 and created a flourishing business. Many of the original miners were Secwépemc who lived at Tranquille, called Pellqweqwile by the incoming miners after the biscuit root there.
Jean Baptiste Lolo “St. Paul,” who had left employment with the HBC some years before, quickly established himself at the mouth of the creek, staking off claims with a group of men from the nearby village and setting up a small trade store.
It is known that as early as 1859, five men were said to be making $300 a day (when gold was $12 an ounce) using sluice boxes. Individuals with rockers were making $10 to $12 a day. By 1861, it was reported there were as many as 150 miners along the river, including many Chinese, making $3 to $16 a day.
One of the Overlanders of 1862 from Canada who did not venture to the Cariboo with the rest of the party, but instead stayed on in Kamloops, was William Fortune. He first worked as a carpenter on the new HBC post, then later settled at Tranquille, taking up farming rather than mining.
By the time he pre-empted land there in 1868, after the Secwépemc village had been decimated by the smallpox epidemic of 1862 and 1863, the creek had already been well worked.
By 1868, there were only 25 men mining on Tranquille River, making between $2 and $5 per day. The completion of Fortune’s flourmill and later sawmill at the mouth of the river in 1869 meant the necessities of flour and lumber for miners were close at hand.
But placer mining was essentially a transient occupation. Those who persisted, like the Chinese, could make a fair living — 20 Chinese miners yielded $7,000 in 1876 alone.
Placer mining on Tranquille River gave way to hydraulic methods in 1892 when a company from the coast headed by James Russell appeared on the scene. Ground sluicing began two years later by erecting a 25-foot high dam across the creek and a flume 1,200 feet long to work the benches along the west side of the creek. It paid about $1,000 in the first year.
The new finds led to the formation of a company promoted by MP Hewitt Bostock.
The Tranquille Creek Hydraulic and Quartz Mining Company secured Russell’s former lease. By 1896, there was a big mining boom all over again. Even Fortune settled near the mouth of the river and, not being a full-time prospector, boasted he had enough gold in the ground under his house to pay off the national debt of England.
Ken Favrholdt is a freelance writer, historical geographer, and former curator/archivist of the Kamloops Museum and Archives. This article is revised from a previous article by Favrholdt in the former Kamloops Daily News.